As students have returned to campus after Thanksgiving break I’ve been asking them how the holiday was. Their answers are quite consistent: the holiday was wonderful, they had a terrific time, and they were ready to come back to campus and plunge into the last couple of weeks of the semester. With the end of the semester looming, I’ve heard about art projects that need to be completed in time to dry, thick books that remain to be read, performances that could use more rehearsal, and lab results that haven’t quite gelled.
I was thinking with amusement that for many students, immersed in reading all semester, Thanksgiving can be a welcome if short break from reading while for me it is a welcome if short opportunity to read. My recommendation coming out of this holiday weekend: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. It’s the story of the assassination of James Garfield, and an utterly gripping tale it is.
Until more than a year ago, when Endstation Theater Company performed Steven Sondheim’s Assassins on campus, I had never given a minute’s thought to James Garfield or his assassination. I suppose it might have been seeing that play that encouraged me to pick up the book. It’s the sort of book that led to my pestering Rick regularly with “did you know?” questions — Did you know that Garfield became a college president at the age of 26? And studied for and passed the bar while serving as a college president? Did you know that in 1881 if a U.S. President wanted to travel he walked into a train station and bought a ticket just like anybody else?
But none of that, fascinating though it was, was the really interesting part of the story. What most intrigued me was the clarity with which Millard lays out the relationship between Garfield’s death and the history of modern medicine. The assassination took place at a very particular moment. Lister and others had pioneered modern infection control, and some forward-thinking doctors were changing their ways, but medical eminences such as were allowed to treat a wounded President were loyal to longstanding and “conventional” practice. Garfield didn’t die from being shot but from medically induced infection. 15 or 20 years later a wound such as his would have been routinely treatable and he would have survived. To me, the story Millard tells is one about knowledge, technology, and innovation — and the world-shaping implications of their interrelation.
(Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell created the first prototype of a metal detector in an attempt to help doctors locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body?)